The World’s Oldest Instruments Are Probably Older Than You Think.

Geißenklösterle is an early modern human settlement in the Swabian cave system in southern Germany, just a bit west of Munich. The caves were first explored in 1963, and first excavated in 1973. The excavations yielded a ton of early modern human artifacts and associated bones. As a whole, the Swabian Cave system has turned up some of the earliest examples of symbolic culture, including the earliest human figure art, pierced teeth used as jewelry, and mythical imagery. BUT, the coolest bits were found in the 1991 excavation. While digging in the same pits, some flutes were found.

Yes, flutes.

I’m going to be living a few hours from that red blip by August, 2022. Guess where I’m going before 2023?

Now, in general, it shouldn’t come as a big shock that modern humans would have music. When was the last time you, a modern human, went more than about 8 hours without it? We humans love our music. What IS shocking, is how early these flutes are.

Carbon dating done in 2012 yielded a date range from 42,000-43,000 years ago. That is mind-boggling.

Having worked as both a dinosaur paleontologist (NOT ANTHROPOLOGY) and a paleoanthropologist, I’ve come face to face with some stuff that is so old it is impossible to conceive of the amount of time elapsed. But paleoanthropologists aren’t dealing with modern humans. Sure, we deal with something more closely related to humans than to any other apes, but still not human. This is different.

42,000 years ago, people living in a German cave system were painting, sculpting, carving, and making music.

And these are not ambiguous items. They’re FLUTES.

Pieces of one of the Geißenklösterle flutes, from Joachim Hahn and Suzanne Münzel, 1995
The more complete of the Geißenklösterle flutes, made from the radius of a swan
The fragments of Flute 1, superimposed over a complete radius, with speculations as to the other notes.

Like I said, these aren’t ambiguous. There’s nothing else they can be. I mean, maybe you could call them a recorder, but nobody wants to do that.

What’s more is that 42,000 years ago, our modern human ancestors were also hanging out with our Neanderthal cousins, who also hailed from Germany. We know already that there was at least SOME cultural exchange. And that there was also some genetic exchange. Do you really think a modern human culture with music was encountering another group of humans and NOT sharing that music?

Backing up a second. We know that these flutes are associated with modern humans because of other artifacts found in the caves. These artifacts are part of a culture called the Aurignacian, which includes various tools and symbolic artifacts (including cave art) that are found alongside human remains and dated from around 43,000-26,000 years ago. The early date range overlaps with another culture, which I’m not gonna get into here. Just stating that there are shifts in ancient cultures dated by changes in designs or types of artifacts, and those changes occurred on a gradient.

Perhaps my favorite part of these flutes is that they’re dated to the EARLY end of that time period. From my field and other research experience, I know it’s just good form to assume nothing you find is the first or last example of it. These were almost certainly not the first flutes ever made. We date the Aurignacian to this window because of date ranges yielded by what’s been found. Realistically though, it has to have been earlier.

We kind of estimate dates around things. There’s some gray area built in to allow for error and future discovery and…well…just knowing that that thing you found isn’t the earliest. The Geißenklösterle Flutes exist on the very early end of the Aurignacian culture.

A short discussion of the earliest musical instruments ever found, how awesome they are, and how awesomer it is that I'm gonna go to the site later this year.
Geißenklösterle is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

To me that means the earlier ones just haven’t been found yet. Maybe (probably) they won’t be. But the 43,000 will always be 43,000* to me. I’m sure we’ll find some artifacts that nudge the Aurignacian to maybe 45,000-50,000 years ago. Which sorta fits with cultural shifts occurring on a gradient, because the earlier culture (Mousterian) lasted until around 40,000 years ago.

Culture didn’t spread then like it does now. People had to bump into one another, intentionally or otherwise. Cultural traditions that were well established and effective wouldn’t have had a super high reason to change. It was just those damn kids coming up with their newfangled Aurignacian artsy whatsits. Eventually it caught on, and here we are.

Anyway, that’s about all I have to say about that. What I want to do now is find a playable replica of one of the flutes.

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